Roman Britain was not all glitter and gold

3rd October 1997 at 01:00
Your review of the new later prehistoric and Romano-British galleries at the British Museum (TES2, September 12) presents an attractive picture of the latest developments at one of our national museums. However, what it does not do is convey any sense of the usefulness of the galleries to teachers, apart from a single comment on the Vindolanda tablets.

While the galleries are very nice to wander through, the Roman gallery, in particular, fails to convey any real sense of life in Britain.

A child could come away from the gallery with the sense that Roman Britain was a wonderfully wealthy place bursting with treasure and awash with shiny gold coins. Just the stuff for using in your stone villa which you have decorated in the height of fashion with mosaics and wall-paintings. Of course everything was safe because the army kept out the barbarians.

Archaeologists will tell you that there was much more to the province than forts, villas and roads. Archaeology is about people but the Romano-British are strangely absent.

This gallery is a fine show of treasure. Indeed that is what confronts you on entering the room from the door nearest the main stairway. If you are teaching classics or artart history then the gallery will be fascinating, but if you are teaching the Romans in Britain at key stage 2, I don't think it is very helpful as a resource to teachers. The displays concentrate on the wealthy elite who have left us pretty things to gawp at. There is precious little evidence of the urban poor, the slave or the farmer - the people whose work made that wealth - and what there is is tucked away behind the loot.

Furthermore, the ethnic diversity of Roman Britain, including black African soldiers on Hadrian's Wall, is not addressed. Archaeology allows us to reach the ordinary folk through their material culture.

When the Roman Britain gallery does this it is fascinating, as the writing tablets and preserved wooden shovel show, but unless you are prepared to take time before, or during a visit, to point out the biases inherent in the artefacts displayed then you could be putting over the wrong impression about the province of Britannia.

I advise teachers to use the Vindolanda tablets, and look at the everyday artefacts and military equipment, but if you can steer students away from the alluring cases of glitter please do so.

In addition, when the interactive gallery is open make sure you go there first so that your group learns that archaeologists are not treasure hunters and that the past is about more than the top 1 per cent of society.

MARTIN BROWN

31 De Montfort Road Lewes East Sussex

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